No. 9 solution? CJ Sapong shines in Toronto FC debut after deadline day trade


As far as first impressions go, it’s tough to make a better one than C.J. Sapong did in his Toronto FC debut Saturday night.

Acquired in a trade with Nashville SC before the league’s Primary Transfer Window deadline Monday evening, Sapong made an immediate impact for his new club, scoring a 46th-minute winner in a 1-0 victory over New York City FC at BMO Field to snap the Reds' five-game winless streak.

“Stepping on to the pitch, I was just really wanting to relish an opportunity to provide an impact, and you know, credit to the group. We moved together. The communication was top. The passion was there as well. I just felt like at any moment we could score a goal. I felt like we were making big stops both sides of the ball,” Sapong told reporters post-game.

The former US international added: “So as a No. 9, it's a really good feeling to come into a group that you just met this week and feel like there's comfort and passion around and things like that. Very surreal experience for me. I'll remember this one for a long time.”

Sapong was trusted by Bob Bradley to immediately slot in as Toronto’s starting No. 9, flanked by Italian superstars Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi. The 34-year-old veteran immediately repaid his manager’s belief by finding the back of the net and snapping a near-year-long goalless drought.

The last time Sapong scored was back on May 28, 2022 against the Colorado Rapids – a span of 11 months. And the goal was just the second of the 2023 season by a Toronto FC striker, as the club has been searching for a more permanent solution at the No. 9 position since the departure of Jozy Altidore before the 2022 campaign.

Canadian international Ayo Akinola, Deandre Kerr, Jordan Perruzza, Hugo Mbongue, Adama Diomande and even Insigne as a false nine were all given looks by Bradley this season before trading for Sapong, but none of them were able to emerge and claim the team's starting striker position. Akinola, Kerr and Diomande have battled injuries during the first quarter of TFC’s 2023 season.

The hope is Sapong’s durability, work rate and selfless style of play better complements and brings out the best in Insigne and Bernardeschi in Bradley’s 4-3-3 system – and unlocks more of an attacking threat for the club moving forward like it did Saturday night.

“He's smart defensively, so he's not pressing all the time but he's taking away passing lanes. When he does need to come top down and put a little pressure on the midfielder, he does that. He's got good timing not only to hold the ball but to come away from the defenders in certain moments; the quality of some of the little soft passes when they come to him. And then he's unselfish with his running in the box,” said Bradley.

The TFC head coach and sporting director added: “Tonight, he got the goal but when you have a striker who runs hard in the box, it oftentimes does a lot to create chances for others. He brings a lot of good quality.”

The victory was just the second of the season for Toronto – now ninth in the Eastern Conference with a 2W-2L-6D record – as the Reds look to build off Saturday evening’s performance next weekend. But it won’t be easy as they’ll welcome Eastern Conference leaders New England Revolution to BMO Field (Saturday, 7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass)